Being Mary Jane, the first scripted series from the US Black Entertainment Channel (BET), is a fascinating beast. Airing on NITV and available on SBS On Demand, the part-melodrama, part-political thriller began with a 90-minute TV movie before launching into the series.
The gist: a successful news anchor attacks her job with professionalism, confidence, focus and ambition, and seems to have it all. Outside work, her private life (including a kind of OCD) is a constant whirlwind, and she spends the episodes facing obstacles to loving and living specific to (black) females, while still remaining universally human.
On paper, the setup doesn’t sound all that original, and it isn’t, but thanks to creator Mara Brock Akil, Being Mary Jane isn’t your average juicy drama.
Here’s why we think you might dig it...
The electric Gabriel Union as Mary Jane
Most of us (but definitely not me, I swear) remember Union as feisty head cheerleader Isis from Bring it On.
Over a decade later, Union’s honed those chops and then some, lifting the sometimes cheesy dialogue to riveting territory. She’s a leading lady with an ultra-expressive face and the ability to traverse the entire spectrum of emotion. Even when the show wanders off or dips in quality, Union’s watchability saves the day.
It’s more relatable than Scandal
The role of Olivia Pope, eventually grabbed by Kerry Washington, was one of the most coveted roles for black American actresses. In fact, Gabriel Union auditioned for the role.
Naturally, during the promotion for Being Mary Jane, comparisons to Scandal were made - a powerful lead female character negotiating her career and private life in a show that attempts to explore what it means to be a woman in American society.
While Olivia Pope is a complex character, not every woman can relate to a Washington DC crisis manager who sleeps with the president. Mary Jane may work on TV, but it’s a local news job, which allows her home life to seem as normal as the audience’s. She deals with family, love, responsibility, identity... everything the average female (and even male) viewer can relate to.
It’s not as if men won’t enjoy the show, but this is definitely a work made for the modern woman.
It provokes discussion among female viewers
One of two title cards that introduce the series:
Being Mary Jane is often lauded as having a strong underrepresented voice, and female critics often sing its praises, raising its respectability above the seemingly anti-female Olivia Pope.
Other women criticised the first season of BMJ for following Scandal and having the protagonist involved with a married man (though some defended the choice), among other beefs, including MJ’s obsession with finding a husband. And a third group battle a love-hate relationship with a show they just can’t stop watching.
The title card that follows - their combination raised eyebrows:
All in all, the show is riveting enough to create a lively conversation between women over what it means to live and work and love in the modern age.
It takes a while to settle down, but any early missteps are too entertaining for us to care
Come on, this still is essentially a more intelligent soap, and let’s remember that sometimes it does take a while for a creator to find the show’s tone (see Parks and Recreation).
Take this hilariously frank question asked to Mary Jane by her illicit lover’s wife:
Tell me that doesn't whet your appetite.
Don’t worry, the show gets better and better as the episodes progress. And you eventually come to love when it dips into tongue-in-cheek melodrama.
Not all the characters are "TV attractive", but those that are, ARE.
Part of the show’s originality is the fact it’s an all-black show from a strong black voice, but the cast is full of diverse faces, shapes and sizes, unlike other soap-tinged shows where everyone is a slash-model.
While at the same time, a few of the leads could read the phone book and audiences would still salivate.
Watch Being Mary Jane on Saturdays at 8:30pm (AEST) on NITV. After they air, episodes are available on SBS On Demand.
Missed the last episode? Watch it here: